New York: strict law to safeguard migrant workers against wage theft

Penalties for employers who steal workers’ pay to quadruple; whistle-blowers protected against retaliation.


14 December 2010. Employers who pay below the minimum wage, fail to pay overtime or unfairly confiscate wages will face a penalty of up to 100 percent under the new law passed by New York State Governor David A. Paterson on Monday.

The law is a major step forward in the state’s protection of vulnerable workers, hitherto deemed widely ineffectual.

Under the old law, employers found to have stolen workers’ wages had to repay the money with a penalty of 25 percent, a fine so minimal that a lot of rogue employers saw it as the cost of doing business, the New York Time reports.

Wage theft is especially widespread in restaurant, retail and construction businesses where illegal immigrants make up much of the work force, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project: In New York City, lost wages this year add up to more than $18.4 million a week.

Workers rarely speak up against these issues as they are likely to face termination or other forms of retaliation, especially in the case of illegal migrants.

The law, heavily lobbied for by immigrants’ advocates and labour unions, removes technicalities that required whistle-blowers to cite the section of the law that the employer broke and allows up to $10,000 in added penalties for employers who fire or threaten workers for speaking out.

The need to protect workers, regardless their immigration status, should be on labour unions’ agendas even in Europe, where exploitation of migrant worker is rife, but attracts less attention that the need to protect local workers against the ‘theft’ of their jobs.

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